According to the old adage, “those who live in glass houses should not throw stones.” Perhaps Billy Joel harbors a personal connection to this sentiment, because on the front cover of his most deviant record (1980’s Glass Houses) he is literally throwing a rock at his own reflection.
Clad in a black motorcycle jacket and poised to vandalize his real-life glass mansion on Oyster Bay, this new bad boy version of Joel looks hell-bent on destroying his schmaltzy “Piano Man” image. But on the album’s back cover, his familiar face peers through the hole that he made in the window, as if to say, “I’m still the same goofy-looking guy you know and love!”
Throughout the 1970s, Joel was known primarily for his swoony piano and soft-rock serenades. With jazzy chart-toppers like “New York State of Mind,” “My Life” and “Just the Way You Are,” he solidified his status as a bankable pop crooner and master of the power ballad. However, to avoid being pigeonholed as a sap, he decided to shatter audience expectations with his seventh album.
Glass Houses is Joel’s rock and roll rebellion: surprisingly hard-edged and frequently exhilarating.
Joel snarls, scoffs, and gets downright dirty at times—completely transforming himself from romantic balladeer into certified badass. The opening track “You May Be Right” kicks off with the sound of glass breaking, and then Joel’s throaty vocals swoop in over drums and electric guitar: “Friday night I crashed your party/Saturday I said I’m sorry/Sunday came and trashed it out again.” A saxophone solo wails out the bridge, and with every repeat of the rock-out chorus, Joel growls with sexy aplomb, “You may be right/I may be crazy/but I just may be the lunatic you’re looking for.”
Side One of Glass Houses features a winning streak of hit singles, with the cynical “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” enjoying the longest reign at the top of the Billboard charts. With this song, Joel takes a satirical jab at the music industry—bemoaning the superficial demands of a youth-obsessed culture (“Where have you been hiding out lately, honey/ ‘You can’t dress trashy ‘til you spend lots of money’”) and stubbornly refusing to change (“Next phase, new wave, dance craze, anyways/It’s still rock and roll to me.”).
The cheeky lyrics continue throughout the album, and each track is a giddily infectious treat. “Sometimes A Fantasy” is about phone sex (complete with heavy panting and weirdly erotic synthesizers) and “All for Leyna” chronicles the fiery pain of a one-night stand. At first, “Don’t Ask Me Why” sounds out-of-place, but the odd conglomeration of Beatles folk-rock and Afro-Cuban percussion (with a Latin-inspired piano interlude thrown in) ultimately triumphs.
While the second half of Glass Houses pales in comparison to the first, a couple of gems stand out. Joel sings in French on “C’etait Toi (You Were the One)” and ends the record on an elegant construction of harmonies with “Through The Long Night.” The brash rabble-rousing may be turned down a notch on Side Two, but a subtle and often beautiful quietness remains.
Glass Houses was a notable success at the time of its release (ranking as the number four album of 1980 and netting Joel the 1981 Grammy Award for “Best Male Rock Vocal Performance”) but has become a cult classic in recent years. Millenials cling to Glass Houses— dusting off their ironic cassette tapes and queuing up songs for their drunken karaoke nights—because the rebellious spirit of the music still resonates with them … or maybe they just enjoy listening to Billy Joel sing about phone sex.
Billy Joel – Glass Houses tracklist:
- “You May Be Right”
- “Sometimes a Fantasy”
- “Don’t Ask Me Why”
- “It’s Still Rock & Roll to Me”
- “All for Leyna”
- “I Don’t Want to Be Alone”
- “Sleeping With the Television On”
- “C’était Toi (You Were the One)”
- “Close to the Borderline”
- “Through the Long Night”